Government advisers say benefit system is ‘broken’


Government ministers in the UK may be celebrating the forcing through of their planned cut to welfare benefit paid through its Employment Support Allowance from April next year but a new think-tank report is describing the benefits system as broken and is calling for a complete overhaul.

broken.smfThe Social Market Foundation1 report includes a recommendation that the notorious Work Capability Assessment should be scrapped. This is the test that has been used to decide, often wrongly, that people with disabilities are fit to work.

So, who is behind this report. Is it people with disabilities? No. Is it welfare rights campaigners? No. Is it political opponents? No. So who is it?

Matthew Oakley.

Matthew Oakley.

The answer may surprise you. The report was written by Matthew Oakley2 who used to be a Treasury adviser and until 2013 was head of economics at the right-of-centre Policy Exchange think-tank. What is more, he’s on Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith’s own social security advisory committee.

In other words, this hard-hitting report, with its analysis and criticism is coming not from the opposition but the Government’s own advisers.

In place of the WCA, the report says the Government should introduce a properly funded system – making use of trial projects and extensive consultation with benefit claimants – which would identify those disabled people closest to being able to get a job, while those too ill or with disabilities preventing work should have a “level of benefit provided … sufficient to allow them to live comfortably and engage fully in society”.

In the UK’s The Guardian newspaper a couple of days ago, Frances Ryan3 wrote that the report also says ‘the Government should abandon the failing benefit sanction system for people with chronic illness or a disability’ – instead putting an emphasis on support meetings and financial incentives through a ‘steps to work wage’ on top of their unemployment benefit.

“Many people on disability benefit really do want to work but they feel broken by the system. It is not about providing support; it is about getting them to jump through the same hoops again and again, and they feel defeated,” Mr Oakley told The Guardian.

Ms Ryan’s article continued:

The reality is, the Conservatives have overseen what are simply the most disastrous social policy reforms in living memory. What comes out of Duncan Smith’s DWP is not a concrete, evidence-based plan. It is a series of wishes, based on a foundation of ideology-driven myths and childish hysteria.

The Government talks – almost laughably – of an ambition to get one million more disabled and chronically ill people into work by 2020 while wasting its time – and taxpayers’ money – on faulty testing regimes that are proven to make disabled people sicker, and which as far back as 2010 were declaring terminally ill people ‘fit for work’.

The Government has brought in ‘tougher’ measures such as increasing the amount of money the DWP can take from disabled and chronically ill people when they have their benefits sanctioned (notably, the DWP didn’t even bother to test the impact of this before bringing it in).

Just yesterday, Duncan Smith was filmed declaring that three-quarters of claimants who are sanctioned say it ‘helps them focus’. I’d tell that to the man with learning difficulties who was sanctioned for being four minutes late at the jobcentre, despite the fact that he couldn’t tell the time. He was found sitting in his flat in the dark with no electricity, gas or food. Or the 23-year-old pregnant woman who was receiving out-of-work sickness benefits for mental health problems following the stillbirth of her first baby eight months earlier. Her benefit was sanctioned after she missed one ‘work-focused interview’ on a day she found it too difficult to leave her flat – and she ended up having to walk two miles to a food bank.

The lie that it’s necessary for disabled people to suffer for their benefits is crumbling. The Oakley report shows that so-called ‘Conservative values’ of personal responsibility and low state spending are not incompatible with a humane and competent disability employment system. What the government has created in its place – rocketing number of disability assessments, outsourced to multimillion-pound private contracts mixed with failing back-to-work programmes – is the definition of economic stupidity.

This week the government forced through its plan to cut some sickness benefits by £30 a week – despite evidence this will actually reduce disabled people’s chance of finding work and that many on the current rate are already struggling to afford to eat – typifies the current Government approach: a disdain for both facts and people’s lives.

We have reached the point where even the Government’s own advisers can’t pretend this system is anything but rotten, her article concluded.

1 The Social Market Foundation (SMF) is a non-partisan think tank. We believe that fair markets, complemented by open public services, increase prosperity and help people to live well. We conduct research and run events looking at a wide range of economic and social policy areas, focusing on economic prosperity, public services and consumer markets. We engage with policymakers and opinion formers, including Ministers, MPs, civil servants, regulators, businesses, charities and the media. The SMF is resolutely independent, and the range of backgrounds and opinions among our staff, trustees and advisory board reflects this.
2 Matthew Oakley joined the SMF as Senior Researcher in July 2015. Prior to SMF Matthew had been Chief Economist and Head of Financial Services Policy at Which?, Head of Economics and Social Policy at Policy Exchange and an Economic Advisor at the Treasury. He is also a member of the Social Security Advisory Committee and he led the Independent Review of Jobseeker’s Allowance sanctions that reported to Parliament in 2014. He is a recognised expert on public policy, welfare reform and consumer issues
Frances Ryan is a journalist for The Guardian and New Statesman. She writes predominantly on austerity, disability, feminism and social mobility. She has a doctorate in politics, exploring inequality in education. She tweets as @DrFrancesRyan and her website is

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